Bill Clinton works his magic at Northern Irish Forum

09/24/2009 11:58 PM

Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's First Minister could hardly keep the smile off his face.
The usually dour Democratic Unionist Party leader was positively lighthearted as he surveyed the 600 Irish Americans in the audience Wednesday at the Clinton Global Initiative session on Northern Ireland at the Sheraton Hotel in New York.

Call it the Bill Clinton effect.

Beside Robinson, the former president was working his political magic as only he can on the group of Northern Irish leaders as well as the Northern Secretary of State Sean Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.

Unknown to most this hotel was the very place Bill Clinton first encountered an Irish audience back in 1992 when he was a relative unknown running for president. That night he promised a visa for Gerry Adams and a peace envoy. Everyone smiled then too, saying it was just another promise from another politician.

We should have known. When it comes to Northern Ireland Bill Clinton delivers.

I think the secret is out. On the podium Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was beaming too. In the audience Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein were part of the smilefest.
Up on the podium Hillary Clinton's new U.S. economic envoy, Declan Kelly, was positively radiant.

He had pulled together the impossible, persuading Northern Ireland's warring leaders to come to America at short notice and take part in the forum. His plan had paid off. It is a very impressive start for the new envoy.

There have not been too many kind words exchanged between McGuinness and Robinson in recent months. In New York they were acting like soul brothers.

It seems that proximity to Bill Clinton has that effect for Northern Irish leaders.
He reminds them they have far more in common than divides them, that their political courage has brought Northern Ireland to a world stage like this not because of conflict but because of the historic resolution of that conflict

After all, no one helped more in solving their problems whether it was a visa for Gerry Adams which brought Sinn Fein in from the cold, or sending George Mitchell to spearhead the Good Friday Agreement or visiting Northern Ireland as president and creating the biggest day out since the Battle of the Boyne .

It was that Good Friday Agreement that Clinton rightly pointed to at his forum as an example of how to resolve conflict in world trouble spots.

The Agreement contains two contradictory notions and allows both sides in Northern Ireland to claim victory. It is full of creative and quite brilliant ambiguity and essentially allows both sides to reassure their supporters that they have not sold out.

A senior IRA figure described it to me memorably as a document "our dead can live with." Amen to that.

At his forum, Bill Clinton was using the document to remind the Northern Irish leaders of how far they had come, putting it in an international context as a model for other countries who have conflict resolution issues.

We heard that Peter Robinson had been to Afghanistan, that Martin McGuinness had been to Baghdad, all in the worthy cause of showing how Northern Ireland had created peace in a divided society. Great and important stuff.

The integrity of the quarrel in Northern Ireland has often been remarked upon most notably by Winston Churchill who referred to the dreary spires there re-emerging unchanged after the cataclysmic events of Word War 11.

That may be so, but the resolution of that conflict sends an even more important message to a world desperately in need of good news. It can be be done, yes we can, is feidir linn,

Bill Clinton embodies that spirit of can do in Northern Ireland. Little wonder Northern Irish eyes were smiling at his forum. Sure he'd steal your heart away.


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